“They say: ‘What part of Greece are you from?’
“I say, Richmond.”
Demitri’ s Feast owner, Demitri Karabagias
Richmond Greek cafes and restaurants are drawing strength from the loyalty between themselves and that of their customers with a show of solidarity in the face of coronavirus trading restrictions.
Many Greek businesses have been displaying posters with the words, “Ολοι μαζι” (All together) in their shop windows, since the start of the lockdown, in April, to emphasise the tight bond between Greek Richmond businesses and their Richmond Greek customers. They say the essence of the old Greek migrant community was still alive in the area.
The shops displaying the poster include the iconic The Rowena Corner Store in Richmond Hill, Laikon Delicatessen in Bridge Road, Bahari, The Hellenic Palate and Demitri’s Feast in Swan Street.
Demitri’s Feast owner Demitri Karabagias told Neos Kosmos he was born and bred in Richmond. He said he attended St Ignatius Primary School, in nearby Church St – where Richmond AFL great, Jack Dyer and former Essendon coach, Kevin Sheedy, also attended – and he supported the Richmond football team.
“I grew up in Richmond above a fish and chip,” Mr Karabagias said.
That fish and chip shop is now Kokoro Japanese sushi restaurant in Swan St, situated across the road and four doors down from the bar and ouzeri he currently owns.
“They say: ‘What part of Greece are you from?’ – I say, Richmond,” he said.
Mr Karabagias said in displaying the poster he and other Richmond Greek shopowners wanted to show their comaraderie in the face of COVID-19.
“The Greek community is solid here in Richmond,” he said.
“Everybody looks out for one another.
“It (the poster) just shows solidarity and support for the community.”
Like other Melbourne inner-city suburbs, Richmond was home to thousands of post World War II Greek migrants. Before its gentrification in the past 20 years, Richmond was highly industrialised, and offered migrants cheap housing near their places of work.
Mr Karabagias said he would continue with takeaway at his shop despite the government easing seating restrictions from today, Monday 1 June.
He said his shop was only 25 sq m and could only seat six people in accordance with the state government’s physical distancing rule of one person per 4 sq metres.
Last week, Neos Kosmos reported Greek-Australian shop owners of large restaurants around Melbourne, including the famous Hellenic precinct in Oakleigh, would reopen today, Monday 1 June to serve meals to up to 20 customers at a time per enclosed space. As well as the person-to-square-metre ratio, tables and patrons have to be 1.5m apart. There were also strict hygiene rules and requirements to document each customer’s details.
Mr Karabagias has been running restaurants for more than 25 years, two in the Melbourne CBD and now 11 years with Demitri’s Feast.
He said he had never seen the dip in trade as severe as now with the lockdown, but he has been able to “just pay our way”.
“If we didn’t have Jobseeker, Jobkeeper etcetera, we would be stuffed,” he said.
“We also have a sympathetic landlord.”
Mr Karabagias said the first two weeks of June when restaurant rules were relaxed would be crucial in terms of preventing another coronavirus outbreak and another lockdown.
He said if things went smoothly, the government could then proceed to the next level and further relax the rules.
“If there’s an outbreak in one place it will set us (eateries in general) back about a month,” he said.
Mr Karabagias said the shop has used the lockdown to get creative with the business.
Takeaway had become a big part of the business now and they had introduced Greek Sunday roasts, “κλέφτικο“, which was proving popular with their regular customers, he said.
“Loyalty is a big thing,” Mr Karabagias said.
He said between 4 and 5pm the eatery posted the daily menu on Instagram and Facebook, and people could ring for delivery.
In keeping with the solidarity among Greek inner-city traders, Melbourne CBD cafe owner John Vakalis, has been helping out at Demitri’s Feast while his city shop was forced to close.
“We are all in this together,” he said.
Mr Vakalis said his cafe, The Journal, near the city library in Flinders Lane, relied on city workers.
He said his 80sq m shop could accommodate the government’s reopening rules and he was reopening the shop, today, Monday, 1 June.
Mr Vakalis said his cafe would be open from 8am-2pm, people could drop in and tables would be rotated.
“It’s still a long journey,” he said.
Laikon Delicatessen has been a family business since it was established in 1976, and is now being run by the third generation.
The owner of the Bridge Road deli, Mr John Pandoleon, said his shop was among the Greek shops in Richmond displaying the “All together” poster and he thought it was a good idea that showed the shops were united.
He said he had not seen such a drop in business with the coronavirus lockdown since the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2008.
“This is probably rivalling that,” he said.
Mr Pandoleon said the deli, which was started by his grandfather, expanded by his late father Michali, and was further extended three years after his father’s death.
He said his father was still part of the business as a photo of him sat on a shelf overseeing diners.
Mr Pandoleon said his cafe’s dining area would open today, with a full menu and no bookings were required.
Philip Vakos and Heleena Alatasas, the husband-and-wife team who have owned Bahari, The Hellenic Palate since 2015, have owned a number of establishments and catering company The Gringlish Co.
Mr Vakos said he had been in the restaurant business for 20 years and cooking since he was 16 years old, and was proud of the Greek restaurant industry.
He said his eateries would open today to diners for two sittings with a new menu and the restaurant would continue offering takeaway, Tuesday to Sunday, between noon and 9pm. He invited people to book online or contact the eatery.
“Richmond has always had a strong Greek community and we are all proud to be part of the Richmond food scene and keep our Greek heritage alive here,” Mr Vakos said.
“The last few months have been extremely testing on the whole industry – solidarity is key for us to get through it ‘all together’.”